3 mins

How to tackle your fear of flying

Do you get sweaty palms at the thought of taking off? Do you battle a flying phobia every time you travel? You need these tips for fearless flying...

Woman with fear of flying (Shutterstock: see credit below)
You’re buckled up and ready for take-off. But you can feel the anxiety bubbling in your stomach, the tension rising in your chest and the panic flooding your thoughts. What if the pilots fall asleep? What if there’s a technical fault? Why did the lights just flicker? What happens if I need to use an emergency exit? And what is that noise?

What may make you relax is knowing that a surprising one in six travellers has some form of fear or anxiety when flying – ranging from a bit of nervousness to full-blown I’ve-got-to-get-OFF-the-plane! phobia.

However, you can learn to ease into your flight and even enjoy it.

If you can address your nervousness before an approaching flight, try to ask yourself what it is that frightens you and tackle these issues head on. If it’s the different, unknown noises, read up on them before you travel (try Fly Without Fear by Captain Keith Godfrey and Alison Smith). If it’s the lack of control you feel, try a book such as Allen Carr’s The Easy Way to Enjoy Flying.

If your anxiety is severe and you suffer from panic attacks while in the air, try your GP. Pteromerhanophobic Fred Caws explains: “Visiting my GP before taking my first flight for two years was imperative. They talked me through the anxiety-relieving medications available. This, along with travelling with supportive friends, was crucial for me.”

Steer clear of negative press and news stories relating to air travel too. Tired pilots, near-misses and runway-skids are stories we often read about, but the number of flights affected by these issues is incredibly low. Captain Chris Foster, a senior captain with easyJet, adds: “Often these stories are taken out of context and don’t highlight that this is only one flight in thousands per day.”

Lastly, avoid all flight-disaster films and TV shows – movies such as The Twilight Zone, Flight and Final Destination are definite no-nos.

Airport anxiety

Organisation is key to curbing anxiety when you’re travelling. Don’t put off thinking about the flight itself as this will only lead to you being more panicked when the time comes.

Plan your journey to the airport so you know how long it will take to get there. There’s nothing worse than sprinting through security and onto a flight when you haven’t mentally prepared yourself for it. To avoid this, have your day mapped out in advance and leave yourself enough time to do things that help you relax – this could be reading your favourite magazine (ahem, Wanderlust) or treating yourself at the airport.

Lawrence Leyton, TV presenter and motivational speaker, advises people to get their head in the right place too: “It’s easy to focus on the wrong thing. Focus on what you want to happen while you’re travelling.”

So if you’re watching planes come in to land, don’t picture them exploding on impact – a lot of people do this. Instead, focus on what you want to happen: the plane lands, taxis and everything is normal.

Tackling take-off

“Controlling how you feel in the air is all about how you communicate with yourself,” explains Lawrence, who also co-hosts easyJet’s Fearless Flyer courses.

By honing in on these positive images you’ll be able to make them happen: picture yourself arriving safely, sitting by the window or walking around the plane. Give yourself a goal and concentrate on working towards it. Also, explain your flight issues to the person you’re travelling with beforehand and ask them to support you. They could do this by using distraction tactics (chatting), telling flight staff of your fears so they’re on hand to help, or simply swapping seats so you’re not glaring out of a window.

Knowing the various sounds and processes a plane goes through can help you relax too. The whooshing of air as you find your seats? That’s the plane’s air-con system. The sudden dipping of lights when you’re strapped in? That’s the plane’s computers switching over. The eerie quiet from the engines, minutes after take off? This is the point at which the plane has gained height and doesn’t need as much thrust so the engines are pulled back. Familiarity is key to keeping calm.

Coping in the air

Turbulence is the biggest cause of tension (and injury) during a flight; the mere word makes many a nervous flyer’s heart race. But turbulence is little more than winds and different types of air buffeting the aircraft – and none are dangerous to the plane. The most common is referred to as CAT (Clear Air Turbulence), caused when different types of air mix. Many pilots liken flying through turbulence to driving over a pothole in a car.

“What may feel like a big drop to you in your seat is insignificant to a plane,” explains Capt Foster, who co-runs the easyJet courses. Jolts are usually the plane moving, but only by a fraction compared to its actual size.

Bad weather can be unavoidable but remember the pilots know what they’re doing: this is their job after all. The best thing to do to avoid unnecessary shocks is to stay in your seat, belted up, and keep busy with something that relaxes you.

Landing lessons Flyers often get twitchy when the destination approaches as the landing is often perceived as one of the most dangerous parts of the journey. “What people often don’t realise is the amount of training a pilot goes through – not just at the beginning of their career but throughout,” clarifies Captain Foster.

Pilots undergo relentless training, practising normal landings, emergency landings, landing with an engine failure, windy landings, snowy landings and more in a stimulator. In short, they know how to get it right – something every fearful flyer should focus on.

Would a fearless flying course help you tackle your phobia?

Donna McDowell took easyJet’s Fearless Flyer course after not flying for two years

What is it that scares you about flying?
I’d convinced myself that the plane was going to crash. I’d experienced turbulence on a flight and was also going through a stressful time dealing with death and illness among my family and friends, resulting in a panic attack and an inability to get on a scheduled flight. It didn’t stop me travelling though: I visited 16 countries during a four-month trip around Europe by land and sea.

What made you want to conquer it?

I need to go to Canada so have to be able to manage a 12-hour flight alone.

On a scale of 1-10, how frightened were you of getting on a plane before the course?

And after?

Immediately after, about four. Now it’s a two.

What did the course involve?
Day one was a three-hour workshop about the psychology of fear – we were given techniques to help us manage our anxiety. We also had a Q&A session with a pilot. Day two involved an experience flight; a pilot accompanied us on board and explained everything – every movement and noise.

How did it affect you?
Sharing the experience with others was really important as I’d felt quite alone in my fear. There was a real sense of community, and a lot of cheers, hugs and even tears once we were airborne.

Was it effective?
Yes. I flew again, and feel a huge step closer to making a long-haul flight.

What advice would you now give?
Try everything and keep doing whatever works for you. I’m tackling my fear from all angles, including counselling, prayer and meditation. I was determined to deal with it but didn’t rush myself. Continuing to travel by train and boat helped me, as I didn’t feel that my life was ruined by not getting on a plane. The course is just one more step in my journey towards freedom.

Main image: Woman with fear of flying (Shutterstock)

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